The Confusion of Codependency
Have you ever been told that, because you are (or have been) in an abusive relationship, you must be codependent? I have, and it’s not only a lie, but it can act as another blow to an already-damaged sense of self-worth. When it comes to abusive relationships, the myth of codependency tends to point fingers at the victim, as if we’re enabling the abuse because of our own internal deficits.
The label of “codependent” serves no purpose for those who are determined to heal and recover from toxic wounds.
A Brief History of Misdiagnoses
The term “codependency” was coined in the twentieth-century, after Al-Anon formed in the 1950’s and ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) in the 1970’s. This term was used to describe the relationship an individual has with alcoholic or drug-addicted loved ones (initially their parents, then carrying over into intimate partnerships).
The original concept of codependency had nothing to do with abusive relationships, and it should have stayed that way. However, the defining boundaries of what it means to be “codependent” have shifted, and the codependent theory has now spread like an insidious water leak to include relationships that may not have anything to do with drug or alcohol addiction.
This is a damaging trend that has resulted in a great deal of confusion and self-accusation among victims of domestic violence.
Many misguided individuals use the label “codependent” to blame the victim for a toxic partner’s abusive behavior. Uninformed therapists will often tell abused patients that they’re codependent and need to seek help for their feelings of shame and their enabling behaviors. These victims have been chastised for “letting” the abuse continue.
No More Codependent Labels
According to Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, “a codependent … lets another person’s behavior affect him or her, and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
This definition seems very odd to me. After all, doesn’t everyone let other people’s behavior affect them in at least one way or another? The label for that is “human,” not “codependent.” I assume Beattie must mean letting another person’s behavior affect him or her to an extreme and toxic degree—yet that’s unavoidable for those in abusive relationships.
And it’s not codependency. It’s trauma, the consequences of intimate mistreatment, and the debilitating effects of the abuse cycle.
Additionally, a victim of domestic abuse knows they can’t control their partner’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde behavior. We don’t obsess over controlling our abuser—more likely we obsess over the perpetual hope that the abuse will stop and our partner will change. At the same time, we make every effort to control our own behavior in an attempt to coerce change into happening.
A tactic that never works, of course. We can’t change our abuser. He has to change himself.
Overreaction … Or Abuse Minimization?
Psychologists John Friel and Linda D. Friel claim that “codependents overreact to external events, while ignoring internal cues and feelings.”
This definition is extremely damaging to a domestic violence victim because it’s the very thing she fears.
Her abuser will tell her she’s oversensitive, uncomprehending, naïve and stupid. This leads her to believe that she’s overreacting to abusive incidents, that they shouldn’t bother her and are “no big deal.”
Yet in the vast majority of cases, abuse victims tend to minimize the severity of the abuse rather than over-emphasize it. To claim a victim is “overreacting” is a statement made by the abusers themselves—as well as those who enable toxic behavior by acting as flying monkeys or offering unsolicited and uneducated advice.
(If you’re not sure what a flying monkey is, no worries—I’ll be writing about this topic soon.)
The myth of “overreacting” is just that—a myth.
It’s true that the internal cues of abuse victims tend to get buried, but that’s not because they’re codependent. The reason is due to the fact that they’re in a relationship filled with constant gaslighting, circular talk and crazy-making. Lack of being able to notice internal cues is a natural trauma response, and part of the healing journey entails the recovery of the necessary sense of safety which enables a person to hear that internal voice once again.
And More From the Trenches …
Addiction-recovery expert Earnie Larsen makes the claim that “codependency is … a diminished capacity to initiate, or participate in, loving relationships.”
The problem with this definition is that it describes the abuser, not the victim. A victim can’t participate in a loving relationship through no fault of her own, but rather because her partner isn’t behaving in a loving way. He’s also not giving her the reciprocal love she so deserves and desires.
As you can see, these definitions of codependency in no way apply to domestic abuse victims, and trying to squeeze them into that role is damaging and misleading—and can possibly lead to re-traumatization.
Because it’s natural for a victim to develop a trauma bond with her cyclical abuser, she may display some characteristics that seem similar to that of codependency, but what’s crucial to keep in mind is the root causes of the characteristics.
The root causes are abuse and trauma, C-PTSD and the consequences of gaslighting.
While it’s true that many domestic violence perpetrators are also alcoholics or drug addicts, the core issue in the relationship isn’t their addiction to substances, but their toxic relationship styles.
An Honest Look at Reality
The codependency myth tends to blame the victim, casting her in the role of an enabler. It also tends to make her feel as if something is deeply, inherently wrong with her, as if she’s intrinsically flawed. This leads not only to an even greater depletion in self-love and self-worth—something a victim can ill afford—but it also relays the message that if she changes, if she “fixes” herself, then the abuse will stop and she’ll have the relationship of her dreams.
The truth is, toxic behavior will never stop unless the perpetrator is willing to completely uproot his false beliefs, attitudes, self-lies and twisted thinking. An abuser will never change unless he gets off the Yellow Brick Road and makes the conscious choice to travel the Road to Damascus.
In other words, he needs a complete life conversion.
Being mistreated and abused is never the victim’s fault. Ever. Nothing we ever said or did caused the abuse, just as nothing we ever say or do can make it stop. Change has to come from within the one perpetrating the toxicity. It’s not up to us to “fix” or change our abusive partner.
What we can do for ourselves is to silence any negative self-talk and reject all damaging and false labels.
If you’re still in an abusive situation, you likely feel as if you’re constantly on a wooden roller coaster that could collapse at any moment. Intermittent kindness and love, followed by psychological, verbal, or perhaps even physical brutality, is disruptive to the soul and destructive to the spirit. The best thing you can do for yourself is to understand the reality of your situation, learn about the tactics of abuse so you can arm yourself against the next attack, and understand the dynamics of a trauma bond. In so doing, you’ll begin to set yourself free from the toxins in your life, to create the soul space needed for healing and recovery.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers us from them all.
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